Summary: The key to relating in God’s church is mutual submission. This aaplies to everyone in the church, young and old, male and female.
We come today to one of those difficult passages, that most preachers would prefer to avoid if at all possible. What we find here isn’t particularly popular in today’s world. Ours is an age of liberation. The idea of submission to authority is at variance with modern ideas of permissiveness and freedom. People have fought long and hard over the past 30 years to liberate, in particular, women, children and workers, from oppression and subordination. So anything that even hints of oppression is deeply resented and strongly resisted. So how do we respond to this modern mood?
Well, the first thing to say is that we should welcome those movements of liberation. We should be working against any institution which exploits or oppresses some group of people, whether they’re women, or children, the poor, racial or religious minorities, or anyone else who’s powerless to help themselves. I guess one of the shames of the Christian church over the centuries is the way we’ve acquiesced in the status quo, even at times unwittingly paving the way for imperialistic exploitation of conquered peoples. But in fact, we should be in the vanguard of those seeking social change. You could argue that the sort of liberation that we’ve seen over the past decades, even the past couple of centuries first occurred with the coming of the gospel. Wasn’t it Jesus Christ who took the first steps to liberating women, children and workers? Didn’t Jesus treat women with dignity and honour in an age when women were despised. Wasn’t it he who said let the children come to me, for of these is the Kingdom of heaven? Wasn’t it Jesus who worked as a carpenter, and who washed his disciples feet because he’d come to be a servant of all? So let’s be careful as we read a passage like this that we don’t read into it a reactionary patriarchal world view. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact before we look at this passage we need to do a bit more background thinking. We need to have a solid foundation on which to stand before we look at something as difficult as this or else it’ll trip us up.
Before we look at this passage we need to understand the Christian worldview that Paul himself teaches. Already in this book he’s argued for the oneness in Christ of all races: that is, of Jew and Gentile. We’re all part of God’s family, brought to unity in the body of Christ. But back in Galatians he went further. There he points out that in Christ, not only is there neither Jew nor Gentile, but neither is there slave or free, male or female. So the oneness we enjoy in Christ breaks down all the social barriers that have been built up since the fall. (But more of that in a moment.)
So the Christian worldview that we should be working from allows us confidently to affirm 3 truths:
the dignity of womanhood, childhood and servanthood as shown by the ministry of Christ himself
the equality before God of all human beings, irrespective of race, rank, class, culture, sex or age.
and the even deeper unity of all Christian believers as fellow members of God’s family and of Christ’s body.
So we shouldn’t see here any hint of inferiority. Submission does not equal subjection or subordination. In fact could you say that there’s a sense in which you can only submit yourself if you’re free to do so? That is, if in fact you’re an equal. If you’re not free, if you’re not acting as an equal, then it isn’t submission, it’s subjection.
Well, that’s all by way of background before we come to actually look at what Paul has to say about personal relationships in the Church. Now remember that Paul is in the middle of explaining how our unity in Christ and the holiness that being in Christ requires is to be lived out in our everyday lives. And now he comes to personal relationships. He wants us to see that being united as a Church also has to be worked out in our one to one relationships. And he chooses the 3 most common relationships in society: husband-wife, child-parent; and master-slave. Now can I say to begin with that nothing that happens today in these areas matches the conditions then In Paul’s day it didn’t matter whether you were Jewish, Greek, or Roman, wives had no rights. They were there to look after their husband’s household and legitimate children. They would hardly have spoken to their husbands. Adultery was the norm. A woman was considered a mere chattel, her legal position amounted to enslavement. Children and slaves were no better. Things were a lot different to today. So what Paul has to say is a radical departure from the general thinking of the dominant culture of his time.